Q &A: Helen Clarke Interviewed by Corin Dann
Interviewed by Corin Dann
HELEN Remember when it was said that Muldoon was the first to master the art of appearing on television? (LAUGHS) Well, now a leader has to be a 24/7 personality. They also need good social media, and social media always works best when it’s authentic and they’re doing it for—
CORIN So that’s actually important for a leader?
HELEN Absolutely important to have a social media presence. That’s how you’re going to reach young people, and then as young people move through the demographics, it’s just going to be the way things are done.
CORIN So President Trump, who’s often criticised, to put it mildly, for his use of Twitter, has actually been a bit of a trailblazer in some sense, has he?
HELEN Well, he’s certainly taken to the medium of Twitter, whereas many in his age group around the world would still be saying, ‘Oh, we don’t understand that,’ like they say we don’t understand Snapchat or whatever. But moving with the times – if you’re going to get your message out there directly, you need to be over social media.
CORIN Is that good for democracy? I mean, do you not run the risk of people talking to silos – groups of people who are—their base, in other words, and not talking to everybody?
HELEN That is an issue – that it can be an echo chamber for those who have the same views as you do yourself, which is why mainstream media still have a major function – to present a range of issues and a range of perspectives.
CORIN I was going to ask you that. So if politicians, you’re saying, as a leader in this day and age need to talk directly to people via social media, what is that role for the traditional media? Do you think it’s dying?
HELEN No, but I think we need to think of it very much in public interest terms – that it’s important that there is a vehicle for putting a range of perspectives out there, and that’s what mainstream television and radio in our country and elsewhere can do.
CORIN One of the things that’s come through very strongly which leaders are going to have to deal with is the issue—We seem to be in an era of populism, rising populism in many places around the world. Are you concerned about that and the leaders that are coming through in Europe, some would argue America, and in the UK?
HELEN Well, I’m concerned about it for a range of reasons. Firstly, you see, populists often undermine the institutions of a free society once they get their hands on power. Secondly we see them stigmatising and marginalising already-vulnerable groups, which may be migrants or other groups in the community. Thirdly we see them offering very simplistic ‘solutions’ to complex problems which, if implemented, can actually make things worse, and I think if you look at the trade issues and decisions coming out of D.C. at the moment, (LAUGHS) that’s arguably in that category.
CORIN So how does a leader carry the public on complex issues? Let’s take some examples in New Zealand – say, law and order – where this government wants to be more progressive and cut prison sentences and these sorts of things. Not necessarily popular. Perfect ammunition for a populist politician, you could argue, some would say. How do you combat that?
HELEN I think you always have to appeal to that sort of broad swathe of the electorate which is in the end reasonable and wants to hear what the arguments are. Evidence is always a good basis for public policy, and if we look at penal policy, clearly it’s failing. There’s several thousand more people in jail than there were when I was prime minister, and we were trying to get it down then. So it’s not working, and you have to then go back to basics and say, ‘Well, what could be done that would work better?’
CORIN But your—I mean, even your own government at that time – 2003, Phil Goff – I think he was very tough on law and order. You had to respond to public opinion. So what’s the difference between the populism and the public opinion which is saying, ‘I want criminals locked up longer,’?
HELEN In the last term I was prime minister, we acted to roll back on some of that rhetoric and the stuff which had accompanied it – so with Geoffrey Palmer and the sentencing guidelines for judges; with the way in which bail was being treated; use of electronic monitoring. There’s a lot of things you can do to get prison population down. I’m personally totally opposed to three strikes and you’re out. I think that’s a ridiculous approach, and we haven’t yet seen the numbers from that flow right through into the prison system.
CORIN But you’re also keenly aware, and as you demonstrated, that there’s a lot—there’s only so much you can do if you want to hold onto power. So at what point—? Do you have to make those calculations when you’re in government? ‘I want to go with the complex argument. I want to lead, but I can’t for whatever political reason.’ And I think in your case it might have been, for example, Don Brash’s Orewa speech. It put you in a very difficult position.
HELEN Yes, and he’s still at it, isn’t he, with his campaigns against local bodies which are trying to get a voice for Maoridom onto their councils, which I think is laudable. But referendum after referendum, catalysed by Dr Brash, those genuine efforts are being bowled over. So in the end, one just has to keep appealing to reason. And I do think that where policy is transparently failing, like the penal policy settings at the moment, you owe it to the public to make a good case for change, as I think Andrew Little is doing.
CORIN Well, the other area is one which you are now involved in, which is drug policy. You’ve got a global role there. New Zealand is obviously starting to become more interested in the issues around decriminalisation. What’s your view? Should New Zealand look to, say, the Portugal model of decriminalisation? Would that be the option that you would suggest?
HELEN That would be the gold standard – to go to the Portuguese model, which is decriminalisation surrounded by massive harm reduction measures. New Zealand innovated more than 30 years ago with the needle exchange scheme, and we did that because it was absolutely essential to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS, but we haven’t really done anything much in all the years since. And if we look at what Canada is now doing, you have safe consumption spaces where people who inject drugs are able to inject in safety; where their drugs are tested; and also in a number of countries, much readier access to the anti-overdose drug naloxone, which WHO says should be in the hands of anyone likely to witness an overdose. So I have no doubt that we could do much better, and we need to look at – what’s Norway doing? What’s Canada doing? What’s Portugal doing? Who’s doing things that are working?
CORIN Again, though, where does leadership come in here? Because this current government has said they would look at a referendum, but then there’s no guarantee they would act on that referendum. It seems to me that, once again, politicians are very nervous about leading on this issue. What do they do?
HELEN Well, I support the New Zealand Drug Foundation on this, and their position is that there should be a binding referendum in 2020. And for it to be binding you need to prepare the legislation beforehand so people know what they are voting on and you can have an informed debate. In referendums, the question is always the question (LAUGHS). And it needs to be simple. But if it’s a simple yes/no around a law that’s been passed and will be activated by a yes vote, that becomes clearer to explain.
CORIN And what’s your sense of the New Zealand public? Do you think that they—? From when you were in government to now, has there been a softening of the views on cannabis? Or, for example, that maybe it’s time to relax those laws? Well, put it another way – that the current policies aren’t working?
HELEN Well, the current policies aren’t working.
CORIN But do you think the public feels that?
HELEN Yes, I do, but I also think what has changed is that around the world we’re seeing a lot of movement on these issues – certainly on cannabis decriminalisation and even legalisation in US states and Canada and European jurisdictions. And in the area of the other illicit drugs, we’re also seeing a lot of innovation around harm reduction measures. So I think follow the evidence. See what’s working. Portugal in the mid-late 90s, when it went down this road, had the highest rate of drug-related deaths in all of Western Europe. Today it has the lowest, so clearly they’ve got something right.
CORIN So would you see the New—If New Zealand adopted a Portugal policy—For viewers at home, this would—would it be all drugs? There would be a decriminalisation if there was a small amount, and then you get put up before a panel of health professionals who would assess whether you need treatment and these sorts of things. Is it all drugs that you think should be decriminalised in that sense? Because P, obviously, is the big problem here.
HELEN Well, decriminalisation or legalisation is the approach which Portugal and others take, but they then have regulation. Now, New Zealand did try regulation of some psychoactive drugs back in 2013 that then, for whatever reason, got dropped like a hot cake the following year. But I think it is worth going back and looking at the principle of that with respect to that particular group of drugs. The Global Drug Commission that I’m on will be bringing out a new report in September, and it will be talking about legalisation and regulation. You have to have regulation and you have to have major harm reduction measures.
CORIN Just on the issue of refugees is another issue I know you’ve been busy on social media with. Should New Zealand be doing more to take refugees from Nauru? Has it got to the point where we circumsede Australia and just go and get them – the 150 we’ve offered to take?
HELEN (LAUGHS) I’ve had Facebook and Twitter comments to that extent – people saying, ‘Where’s Willie Apiata? Could we mount a raid on Nauru?’ which—OK, it’s funny. That’s not going to happen. I don’t think New Zealand can do more. New Zealand’s offered. John Key offered. Jacinda Ardern has offered. But I was really horrified to see the story about the children who are now, in effect, taking steps to end their lives because they are so depressed.
CORIN Why can’t we do more? Is it about the relationship with Australia? Would it damage the relationship with Australia too much?
HELEN Well, you’re dealing with two sovereign countries. One, they’re in Nauru, and one, they’re in Australia. So unless the two parties to this are going to agree, there’s nothing you can do as a third party, as it were.
CORIN Could I ask you, too, about the issue of business confidence? We’ve had this debate raging in New Zealand, as you’ll be well aware, over the last few months and in particular in the last week. What was it, in your experience, when you suffered the ‘winter of discontent’, as it’s known, what was the circuit breaker that you got then? How did you navigate that and what do you think about what’s going on?
HELEN I think the circuit breaker is pretty much what Jacinda Ardern has announced. You have to engage. Clearly there are elements of the business community which is grumpy, and they were grumpy in my time, but engagement is the key thing. They may not like the policies, but they like predictability; they like certainty; they like to know that they can have a dialogue with you. So I would just recommend engage, engage, engage.
CORIN What was the circuit breaker for your government?
CORIN Let me put it another way – did you roll back some of the policies?
CORIN That seems to be the perception was that you somehow sort of watered down some policies and everything went away.
HELEN No, we didn’t roll anything back, but we did have a lot of engagement with business around New Zealand, a lot of regional economic development visits, and also John Hood at Auckland University with the Knowledge Wave conferences was very helpful in providing a basis for looking forward and not back.
CORIN Did you think they were being unreasonable?
HELEN Well, I felt that some had never buried the cudgel from an election campaign where they had firmly pinned their flag to the mast of another party. But we did manage to navigate our way through. And, of course, the record shows that for years we delivered good growth in unemployment, so there wasn’t a basis for low confidence.
CORIN But nevertheless you still had low confidence, though, even though you were delivering those things. Was it just—? So is there some argument that there is a bias there?
HELEN Without doubt there’s a bias. It doesn’t apply to every businessman and every businessperson, of course, because Labour has also always had support in those quarters. But, you know, there is a vocal group that just doesn’t like Labour being in government, (LAUGHS) and they will continue to complain.
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